It’s an old-fashioned study in contrasts, to look at the two of them, Abraham Lincoln and Sam Houston; both political giants, both of them a linchpin around which a certain point of American history turned, both of them men of the frontier. The similarities continue from that point: both of them almost entirely self-educated, as lawyers among other things, and from reading accounts by their contemporaries, it is clear that each possessed an enormous amount of personal charm. In their own time, though, each of them also acquired equally enormous numbers of bitter enemies. In fact, for a hero-founder of Texas, Houston attracted a considerable degree of vitriol from his contemporaries, and a level of published vilification which was not bettered until Lincoln appeared on the national scene as the presidential candidate favored by the north in the 1860 election. And both of them had ups and downs in their political and personal lives, although it’s hard to argue that Lincoln’s personal story arc was anything as eventful as Houston’s – the ADHD child of Jacksonian-era politics.
But they were also opposites in at least as many ways as they were similar. The family of Samuel Houston had at least some pretensions to property and gentility, whereas that of Lincoln had not the slightest shred of either. Born in 1793, Houston was just barely old enough to have served actively in the War of 1812. He seems on that account to have been representative of an earlier generation than that of Lincoln, a generation only a half-step removed from the founding fathers. He came to the notice of Andrew Jackson, and thereafter spent much of his life when not strolling up and down the corridors of power, loitering meaningfully in the vicinity. He served variously in the Army or state militia of Tennessee, as an Indian agent, in Congress and as elected governor of Tennessee. He was married three times, was an absolutely legendary drunk and lived with the Cherokee tribe for a number of years. He was personally brave, impulsive and addicted to flamboyant gestures and attire, being talked with great difficulty out of wearing a green velvet suit to one of his inaugurations as the President of independent Texas. He was also, to judge from portraits and photographs a very handsome man, resembling a rather rugged Colin Firth on a bad hair day.
Houston’s enduring legend was established as the hero of Texan independence; just another one of those footloose adventurers, drifting in during the 1830ies. Like those whose names would be soon written in letters of blood and gold – Bowie, Crockett, and Travis – they were all under a cloud, and Texas would be their redemption. Unlike the other three, Houston would survive the experience. Some of Sam Houston’s cloud was of his own making: he went from a disastrously and very publicly failed marriage, leaving his term as governor of Tennessee and going on what appeared to have been a prolonged bender in the Cherokee Territory before pulling himself together and going to Texas. In the mad confusion that was the founding of independent Texas in the spring of 1836, Houston was about the only senior military commander who kept a cool head, faced with Santa Anna’s invading army. He also — and this was no mean feat — kept his cool in the tomcats-in-a-sack political wrangling that proved to be fairly typical of Texas state politics, then and forever afterwards. He pulled together an effective army, and decoyed Santa Anna into East Texas, farther and farther, until his own commanders were on the verge of deciding he was a coward and would not fight at all. But he turned, when he had the terrain in his favor, and became that rarest of heroes; the one who dies of old age in his own bed. By then he had married Margaret Lea, who was half his age at the time, a shy and beautiful southern belle with a spine of steel; she stopped him from drinking, and kept him more or less on the straight and narrow for the rest of his life.
Abraham Lincoln was born in obscurity and might very well have stayed there, save for the unquenchable burning spark that led him once to walk twenty miles to borrow a book that he had not read before. One has the impression of a ferociously hungry intellect, pulling every scrap of knowledge, of history and poetry, politics and the law into a mind never entirely content. It has been speculated recently that he was subject to bouts of deep depression. He was also ambitious, and went into politics early, while still in his early twenties before teaching himself law and being admitted to the bar in 1837. He practiced law in Springfield, Illinois and increasingly involved himself in state political affairs.
The existing pictures of Lincoln give an impression of melancholy, of someone haunted by unbearable sorrow, whereas those of Houston in his prime seem to be of a scrappy fighter with three aces among the cards in his hand, and a fairly good idea of where he will find a fourth. Another difference between the two: Lincoln was not handsome. In the words of the country expression: he fell from the top of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. From the accounts of his closest early friends, he was the most endearing and entertaining company, a gifted raconteur and mimic, able to reduce his audience to helpless laughter – and a shrewd lawyer, particularly relentless in cross-examination. He married the lively and cultivated daughter of a notable and politically well connected family from Kentucky, the Todds of Lexington. Mary Todd had also been courted by Stephen Douglas, with whom Lincoln would debate over the slavery issue in 1858. Possibly that added a frisson to the debates.
In 1846 he was elected to the US House of Representatives for one relatively lackluster term, before devoting himself almost exclusively to law for most of the subsequent decade. He returned to politics again, as the question of America’s ‘peculiar institution’, of chattel slavery went from a simmer to a full rolling boil on the stovetop of political consciousness. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 seemed to be nothing more than a crude exercise of the power of pro-slavery expansionists, in permitting the spread of slavery to territories where it had been forbidden in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The public debates, and lectures which followed, energized that portion of the Northern public which was against such expansion, or even the existence of the institution itself and brought Lincoln to more than just local attention. He was put on the Republican ticket in the 1860 presidential contest as a compromise candidate, a moderate who would attract voters in the western states. His election was seen as a low blow by the Southern, slave-holding states, who began walking out almost before the voting was finished.
Texas was among them, even though Sam Houston was governor of the state that he had variously served as general, congressman and president. Although he owned slaves, he was a unionist, and valiantly fought a delaying action against the secessionists. Lincoln even offered to send Federal troops to keep Texas in the Union: Houston declined, and rather than swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, left his office and public life.
They might possibly have met face to face. They had a chance of course, being both in Washington at the same time, from 1846-1848: Lincoln in the House of Representatives, and Houston in the Senate. One of Houston’s biographers speculates that if Houston had only been a little younger, and had been considered more than briefly for the 1860 presidential slate of candidates – the Civil War might have been averted or delayed for another few years. Or maybe not.
(The original version of this essay came about when I was trying to channel what Sam Houston would have thought of Lincoln, as part of writing Adelsverein: The Sowing, which deals with the Civil War as it was experienced in the Texas Hill Country.)